Keep Your Eyes Open

I'm not an architect, but as I've grown as a furniture maker, the connections between furniture and architecture is strong and undeniable. Gustav Stickley, a furniture maker, designed homes, and published other's plans for craftsman homes, in his The Craftsman magazine. Frank Lloyd Wright not only designed homes, but often the furniture that went in them (the control freak that he was). So its not surprising to find inspiration in period buildings. 

Recently, I went on a walking tour / architecture tour of some turn-of-the-last-century homes and buildings in my neighborhood. As a period furniture maker, a fan of craftsman / arts & crafts furniture, and the history of my city & neighborhood, this was a slam dunk for me. The tour was a mixed bag of highs and lows. There were some places that had been "modernized" by clueless people who had more money than taste, not "getting it", and ruining once classic interiors with horrid sterile choices (me, "they painted the oak wainscoting and built-in hutch GREY!?!?!"). Those places ranged from sad to unbearable (me "what did they do with the the original cabinets, the one's they replaced with those plastic things?"). But thankfully there were several places that, oh boy, they GOT IT. Really got it. Either well preserved, or in one case, lovingly restored - a gut rehab (for damage and structural issues) that looked like it had been that way for 100 years.

The star of the show (for me anyway, most people were oohing and awwwwing over a 1920s garage that had been converted into what must have been an aging rock star's modern man cave. Once color - concrete. sigh) was "the Rose Building", at 2934 W Logan Blvd, Chicago. It was so nicknamed by it's heavy Art Nouveau and Craftsman styled woodwork, art glass, and masonry using repeating rose motifs. (I wasn't allowed to take interior photos, but here are a few expired real estate listings that show interior shots, here and here.). Not only is the interior immaculate, with fantastic built-ins, trim, and woodwork throughout, that a look at this detail. A few decades ago, when this neighborhood was rougher, the original sidelights of the dramatic front door were vandalized, and replaced with simple plate glass...

... but over the last few years, they did research on the original glass, found old photographs, and rebuilt it to look like this...

Simply fantastic. The event was great, and I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do. My own maxim was reinforced - don't fight your home's style, embrace it, or get a different house. Anytime someone tries to think they're clever and quirky trying to make a Victorian home in Swedish modern, or an art deco house into a Georgian, you're going to fail, and it's going to look terrible. 

So, keep our eyes open out there, there's a lot to learn, and lot to inspire your woodworking.

The Robie House and Red Oak


Living in the Chicago area means that I have a lot of access to some great Frank Lloyd Wright stuff. As a fan of Arts & Crafts/ Prairie/ Mission/ Craftsman furniture and style, I love being able to visit the FLW Home & Studio in neighboring Oak Park, the Robie House in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, not to mention the number of houses and buildings that Wright, his partners, students and admirers built throughout the area. Like many, I have a love/hate relationship with Wright's works. They're full of intense positives: they are undeniably creative, challenging, innovative, and wonderfully thorough, while at the same time full of terrible shortcomings and flaws: often poorly built, uncomfortable, limited in utility, often with a preference for style over practical considerations. In some ways Wright comes off sort of like a high-faulutin' fashion designer, one that makes incredible designs that are totally impractical, but when their influence trickles down do the "real world", are sound and rewarding. Not always, but sometimes.

(I guess its sort of silly to try to wrap up the essence of the Frank Lloyd Wright experience in a few sentences, but you get the idea. Apologies to the millions of scholars and thousands of art and architecture authors out there.)

But as a woodworker, I love visiting Wright's sites and looking at the woodwork and furniture, and trying to imagine the eccentric Wright driving them all nuts as they tried to execute his ideas. Recently, I had a chance to visit the Robie House in Chicago's Hyde Park area with my family, a place I'd always meant to go, but hadn't had the chance. Needless to say, it was absolutely great, and so very worth it on many levels. While there's a lot to discuss about the house, this post will focus on my observations as a woodworker and furniture maker.

Let's get to it. Red oak. Among woodworkers, there is a pretty big crew of red oak haters out there. They have their reasons: red oak, being one of the most plentiful hardwoods in the midwest and eastern United States, is cheap, and thus, everywhere. Being everywhere, its overuse has made it tiring to the eyes. Add to that the flood of "golden oak" finished, tacky "country" style house trim and furniture, and it has been beaten. to. death. For woodworkers, they find it brittle and splintery, and some don't even like the smell! Oh poor red oak, you are indeed the red (oak) headed stepchild of the woodworking world. But, do we blame the poor noble red oak for being the victim of abuse and misuse? Is it red oak's fault that it is plentiful, and thus used on cheap pieces and tacky interiors? Clearly, that's unfair. I put it to the red oak haters that they need to challenge themselves to use red oak creatively and tastefully, and discover ways to give this maligned and disrespected wood another chance.

Which brings me back to Frank. One of the central themes of Wright's "Prairie Style" philosophy was the use of local materials, the use of which blended a building to its surroundings. This is a tenet of Stickley's Craftsman style, William Morris's Arts & Crafts movement as well. In the 1909 Robie house, aptly called Wright's "Prairie style masterpiece", did he use mahogany, or sepele, or wenge as the wood of choice? Did he use chestnut, black walnut, or even noble white oak? No, he used red oak. But he didn't use it all flat sawn, with crazy cathedral patterns, and stained "golden brown". No, he used it all sort of ways, dyed/stained a deep brownish red, and often quarter sawn, or rift sawn, with nice tight grain. (If you think you hate red oak, and instead think quarter sawn white oak is vastly superior, you need to take a good look at quarter sawn red oak, it is every bit as amazing). Here's some pictures from that interior...

And the piece de resistance, the kitchen counter...

(while my iPhone photos here aren't the best, here's a Google search that get you many more interior and woodwork shots)

Yeah, pretty nice. And very nice all together, the furniture and the woodwork working together. The lesson I take away from all this is that Wright took something mundane and common, red oak, and not only found fantastic ways to use it beautifully, he made it part of the whole theme, connecting the house, the interior treatments, and the furniture, to its place in the world. (I'm sure he could have just been being cheap as well, opting for red oak over white as a cost cutting measure. But look at the result). Sure, it's subtle, but the best parts of Wright's designs are just that: subtle, direct, and seemingly so simple after they're explained and pointed out that they come off as "obvious". That's the genius in great design.

Thanks Frank, and red oak!

Simple door details

I saw this doorway a few weeks ago while walking through a local neighborhood. It caught my eye for three reasons:

  1. It is original, and intact
  2. it is very simple, yet effective at adding an interesting detail
  3. its the same style/pattern that is used in the interior of my 1903 house, as well as that of a nearby neighbor's 2-flat.

I am always charmed by these sorts of things that are easy to execute, yet add great presence to a piece. Hooray for someone not painting over this nice red oak! However, the mottled opaque glass in the four corners has to go. It should be clear at least.

I'm back, and some architectural details

I't been a while since I've posted, but that doesn't mean I've been idle. In fact, I've been pretty productive over the winter, through the spring, and into summer. I have plenty of photos of projects, posts to make, and news to catch up on, so keep an eye out for that.

I've decided to add a "new category" of posts to the blog, generally around images and thoughts on architectural details. I like to walk through neighborhoods in Chicago, and when I see architectural details that catch my eye, good or bad, I usually take a snapshot or two. I'm going to start posting those here as well. Here we go...

Chicago has a long history with Arts & Crafts / Mission / Prairie / Craftsman styles in buildings great and small. Of course there is the quintessential Chicago bungalow, but other building styles tended to follow that general aesthetic, to greater or lesser degrees, during the 1900-1930s. Many brick "2-flat" or "3-flat" apartment buildings were built in that period, and they usually featured some art glass in the entryway, or above the mantle piece/fireplace, or in the side vestibule. I always look for these to see if someone has "gotten it" and kept them intact, or, sadly (and tragically frequently) knocked them out, or boarded them up/over. 

But here's a great entry door on a multi-apartment building that still bass original glass. Pretty cool...